Kevin Schilbrack is a professor in the Philosophy and Religion Department at the University of Western Carolina. His publications include The Future of the Philosophy of Religion (Blackwell, 2013) and he is contributing editor to the forthcoming, The Blackwell Companion to Religious Diversity (2014). The following interview focuses on a December 2010 essay appearing in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion entitled, “Religions: Are There Any?”
Matt Sheedy: In your work you have discussed on-going debates over the continued use of the term ‘religion’ as a concept within the discipline and how it has variously been critiqued as a social construction, as historically recent and Christian-centric, and as ideologically motivated (e.g., imperialist, orientalist). You note that there are two main responses from scholars who acknowledge this history — those who want to retain the concept, such as yourself, despite its problems, and those who want to abolish it. What are the main arguments of the “abolitionist” position as you see it?
Kevin Schilbrack: This is an example of a topic on which I read and take seriously scholars of religion with whom I disagree. I think that the main arguments of those I call abolitionists are the three that I describe in “Religions: Are There Any?”, namely: that we should drop the concept of religion because it is a conceptual invention of the modern west, because this invention distorts that which it is used to describe, and because it has been used as ideological support for colonialist and imperialist projects by portraying non-western cultures as either superstitious and backwards or Godless and needing salvation. But I think that retentionists who continue to use the concept, like me, can agree with all three of these criticisms: none of these facts shows that the term does not capture interesting aspects of the way that people act and speak. I think that we ought to be conscious that the concept of religion (like the concept of “patriarchy,” say) is often not shared by those on whom we impose it. And we ought to make it clear, as Bruce Lincoln does, that religion comes in maximalist and minimalist varieties. I therefore judge that the abolitionists are not at their strongest when they merely repeat the social constructionist point that the term “religion” is a European or Christian invention nor the eliminativist point that “religions are chimerical” or “there are no religions.” Their best argument, I judge, is that this term is not as useful or not as illuminating as other ways of looking at the same data. To use the concept of religion to sort historical movements and cultural phenomena leads one to distinguish between, for instance, religious politics and secular politics. The abolitionists can plausibly argue (as does William Cavanaugh) that distinctions like this occlude more than they illuminate.
I find that for retentionists like myself, it is a healthy imaginative exercise to stand with the abolitionists and to try to think without the concept of religion. Although it is hard to find anyone who thinks that religion is a natural kind — like frogs or lightning, say — many do take religions unreflectively to be simply part of the furniture of the world and not a sorting term developed for certain socially and historically located interests. For that reason, retentionists should experiment with ignoring the distinctions between (for example) the Constitution and the Bible, tourism and pilgrimage, or secular politics and religious politics. I agree with the abolitionists that the ideas of the “sacred” and “ultimate concern,” two proposals to mark off the boundary of religion with experientialist or existentialist criteria, are generally too vague and inclusive to be helpful. In my judgment, a definition of religion has to include a substantive element (for my proposal, see my “What Isn’t Religion?”). In the end, however, I am a retentionist in that I hold that, given a substantive definition of “religion,” it can be illuminating to distinguish between cultures that justify their practices with reference to superempirical realities and those that do not.
MS: You argue that religion, as a social construction, is nonetheless “real” by convention and agreement and in this sense should be understood as something that is performed and, in the process, transforms the bodies of those who are performing it. Could you elaborate on these premises?
KS: I think that the concept of religion operates in the same way that other abstract terms for aspects of human culture operate. When one reads the scholars who offer allegedly “deconstructive” or eliminative approaches to the concept of religion, one sometimes sees dismissive comments like “religion, whatever that might be…” or “a member of so-called religious tradition ….” It is strange that those who criticize the term religion do not undermine other abstract categories for culture on the same principle: they do not make comments like “the economy, whatever that might be…” or “a member of a so-called political party….”
To say that religion is real by convention, as I do, puts religions in the same category as other social realities. Religions are the product of human imagination just as nations and economies are. But this does not mean that they are not real – vestments are no more imaginary than is a capital building or a $10 bill. Praying is no less real than voting or shopping. In all these cases, it is not as if “believers” merely think religions, nations, and economies into existence. In all three cases, membership is marked by clothes and comportment and behavior. It is marked by the inculcation of norms and by the conflict with those with whom one’s norms conflict.